Friday, March 27, 2015

Luc Tuymans, The Shore @ David Zwirner London

Luc Tuymans, Bedroom, 2014
It’s always a strange experience for me to be among Luc Tuymans’ paintings. I love painting. And so much of what I love about painting is nowhere to be found on Tuymans’ canvases. There is nothing painterly about these works, nothing to seduce the viewer into an engagement with the material of paint, nothing to invite the viewer to indulge into the sumptuous eroticism of paint, nothing to contemplate. Tuymans’ idea of painting is all about surface: flat, fast, and superficial. The aesthetic is designed to echo, as a strategy of representation, the screens that are the preferred form on which we view images. And with that, comes the alienation and coldness that, as we know, takes over when we look at these screens for too long.
Luc Tuymans, The Shore, 2014
Also alienating and cold is the fact that what finds its way into the Tuymans frame is usually not what the painting is about. That is, the important aspects of the image are rarely within the frame, usually just out of frame, creating an ambiguity and a frustration that keeps us looking, even though there is not so much to look at. Nothing is fully visible, if it’s not obscured by the vagueness created through the out of frame, as we see in the title image of this exhibition, The Shore, the light is so black that the white figures becomes ephemeral, a compositional conflict with the darkness that surrounds them. It is one of the many ways that Tuymans insists on abstracting the image and its subject matter.

In this current series, The Shore, at David Zwirner’s London gallery, each of the images has a story, but the story has been removed. The flyer given out by the gallery describes the story, thereby turning ostensibly abstract paintings into narrative paintings. Without the text and the suggestive titles, we might be satisfied with the abstract visions, but with it, we become confused enough to want to cognize what has ultimately been erased or removed from the frame. This is par for the course in an exhibition of Tuymans’ painting. In fact, it is the point of them.
Luc Tuymans, Cloud, 2014
Tuymans, as always, begins with found images, this time from his cell phone, the media, found on the internet. Even though Tuymans’ work is highly original, there’s no such thing as an original image in his body of work. In the ultimate irony, he was found guilty of plagiarism earlier in the year when he painted a portrait of a Belgian politician after a photograph. How can third degree, out of focus, abstracted images possibly be a form of plagiarism? All his images begin somewhere else, of objects and people that somehow become lost to the painted image. Even if they do represent something, a recognizeable object, such as an obelisk, a cloud or a light fitting, the painting is no longer about that object. Ultimately, even when the paintings look as though they are figurative art, they are not, they are, somewhere along the line, transformed into conceptual and abstract works.
Luc Tuymans, Issei Sagawa, 2014
Despite the oft remarked upon links to Gerhard Richter’s painting, I suppose because of the blur, the dependence on photography, the engagement with painting in a post-painterly world, Tuymans is original and innovative. His work is not like Richter’s. Even though both may be challenging and interrogating representation, a challenge that is posed through a use of painting, Tuymans is doing something different. Tuymans does not put painting and the photographic image in a relationship of interchangeability. Rather when he paints Wallpaper (2014) of a luxury hotel he visited in Edinburgh, the off kilter image of an obelisk in a wooded landscape assumes an objectivity, a detachment from the found image, rather than merging the two as Richter usually does.
Luc Tuymans, Wallpaper, 2014
 The press release for The Shore claims that historical subjects of these paintings are placed into the present moment. However, I think his practice is even more radical than this: through the detachment and abstraction of grey paint, I would argue that Tuymans takes the objects and people who might be recognized out of time altogether. And the grey is crucial here: it’s not a grey of darkness and isolation, it’s the gamut of greys that colour the digital screens and other source images that alienate us, that take us out of the reality of time.

What then are these paintings about? Beyond their play with representation three times removed. The work shifts very quickly and easily from highly charged public subject matter across a range of historical sources. For example, the face of Issei Sagawa (2014) who murdered and ate a Dutchwoman and then became a celebrity in his home country of Japan for the bizarre crimes, becomes a fascination for Tuymans. In the blurred, extreme closeup the murderer’s identity is lost or rather, confused by the close to abstraction of the original photograph. Again, Sagawa becomes as ambiguous as the subject matter in Bedroom or The Shore, based on the opening scene of a 1968 colonial film A Twist of Sand in which people are about to be gunned down. I wonder then if any of these paintings, no matter what they represent in the image ever reach beyond a discourse on the image? This is not to demean Tuymans’ paintings because of course, their brilliance lies in the perpetuation of this question that might be unanswerable.

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